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The use of dystopia in game design
Posted on Tuesday, July 23 2013 @ 05:43:43 PST

This member blog post was promoted to the GameRevolution homepage.


[Editor's Note: As Nick Olsen is a writer for Theory of Gaming, this won't be counted in the monthly Vox Pop prize. However, it is very much a worthy read.]

In a recent essay I wrote for Theory of Gaming on the need to re-define the use of the term "sandbox" for improved accuracy, it dawned on me how important the role of dystopia is in video game design. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia defines dystopia as:

dystopia is a community or society, usually fictional, that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Such societies appear in many works of fiction, particularly in stories set in a speculative future. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization,[1] totalitarian governments, environmental disaster,[2] or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society.

So what does dystopia have to do with video game design? Well, at its most basic level, dystopia drives conflict and tension through dissatisfaction. For example, any game within the immensely popular zombie genre, from the original Resident Evil to The Last of Us, takes place in a world (a speculative future) which has suffered a global infection (environmental disaster), leaving the world inhospitable and frightening. But even beyond the zombie genre, heck, beyond the horror genre entirely, there exists a number of games which utilize the idea of dystopia to draw players in.

SimCity, a game which on its surface, encourages players to create utopic versions of hand-crafted cities even provides players the option of introducing dystopia into their cities and games. How many hours have each of us spent creating a beautifully planned and well-functioning city only to summon a monster to smash it or a natural disaster to bring the city to ruins? I know I've done this more times than I can count. But why? The simple answer is that utopia is boring! Games thrive on conflict, and establishing a utopia provides a slew of challenges to keep players entertained. Once utopia is attained, however, boredom sets in and we seek a new challenge to overcomes. 

Maybe this says more about us as humans as a species (I'll leave that up to the psychologists) but as far as gamers go, we crave the conflict. We want to overcome the challenges. What if Donkey Kong had sat atop his perch, arms open inviting Mario to come and whisk the princess off to glory instead of chucking barrels at him? Or what if the Reapers simply came by to check on the galaxy's progress and ensure everything was running smoothly instead of harvesting all life in Mass Effect? Can you imagine Issac boarding the Ishimura in Dead Space to find its crew milling about and offering him a cup of tea? 

Yeesh, talk about boring!

There are countless examples of video games using dystopic ideals as the centerpiece of game design. In fact, you could probably argue that at its broadest level, almost all video games use dystopia to some effect. 

Obviously, there's a lot more we could discuss about this topic, but I just wanted to share my quick thoughts with the gang of avid gamers here at Game Revolution. If you've got other great examples, or can shed any insight into the use of dystopia in game design let's hear them in the comments. If you're a psychologist who wants to touch on humanity's obsession with utopic aversion, well, maybe keep that one to yourself.

The opinions expressed here does not necessarily reflect the views of Game Revolution, but we believe it's worthy of being featured on our site. This article has been lightly edited for grammar and image inclusion. He has provided links of his own in the article. You can find more Vox Pop articles here. ~Ed. Nick
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